Sunday, March 31, 2013

coffee music

The Sunday morning coffee concerts at Wigmore Hall are an institution and a fine way to experience time travel.  Every Sunday at 11:30 the hall plays host to a soloist or a small ensemble for a concert of just about an hour.  Depending on the week, there might be piano sonatas on the program or lieder, string quartets or a clarinet trio, Bach's cello suites or something obscure by someone unknown.  I never check the program before I go:  The music's always great.

The pleasure doesn't stop at the ears.  Wigmore Hall was built around 1900 and decorated in the taste of the times.  Throughout the concerts listeners can feast their eyes on the big mural at the head of the hall and in the dome above the stage extolling the divinity of humankind, rays of progress, the new man.  I'm always vaguely reminded of the communist hero depictions I grew up with.

To complete a triumvirate of sensory experiences, after the show, the audience is invited into the basement café where tickets can be traded for glasses of sherry or, for those of austerer disposition, coffee.  Inspired by music and enlivened by alcohol, the grey-haired crowd mingles and contemplates in which leisurely way to spend yet another quiet Sunday.

It is here that time travel comes into play.  All through the concert but especially at this coda, I feel like 80, blending in with those around me, and start imagining the days of my retirement.  Breakfast cooked by the staff, a concert at Wigmore Hall, a stroll through Regent's Park and up towards Primrose Hill for lunch, and then somewhere lovely for tea.  Ta-ta, life is good.

Today it was easy to shake of the delusion of premature aging.  It was, to sing the refrain to a song that's getting increasingly tiresome, cold and blustery.  As I left the venue, still under the graceful glass-and-iron canopy that protects the entrance, all thoughts of leisurely strolls were blown from my mind.  I ran to Bond Street and hopped on the tube, off to activities more suitable for my age.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

four times

I've mentioned before that in the five years that I've lived in London, three companies have tried and failed to turn a direct air link between London and Dresden into a financial success.  British Airways flew for a year in 2007/2008, from Gatwick.  Lufthansa held on for two years and only abandoned the project when they sold British Midlands, their subsidiary that operated the flights out of Heathrow.

Late last year, OLT Express, an upstart budget airline entered the market with a whirl of, as the late Douglas Adams might put it, no publicity at all.  Their ineptness led to one of the swiftest corporate meltdowns I've ever witnessed.  As they abstained from marketing, no one knew about them and hardly anyone flew.  I was one of the few, but only for one leg.  Lufthansa bailed me out on the return trip, when OLT Express simply vanished.

After arriving at my home not much later than I otherwise would have (thanks to the quicker ride from Heathrow compared to Southend), I fired off an email outlining my rights as a passenger under EU regulations.  If your flight is canceled, you're owed compensation.  OLT Express eventually replied with the offer of a return flight to anywhere on their network, which I declined.  There weren't many places to go and, anyway, tickets were cheap.  I'm double happy that I insisted on the 250 Euros because seven weeks after I got my money, OLT Express folded.

One day before I pocketed the compensation, Air France announced it would fly its subsidiary CityJet between City Airport and Dresden from spring, "complimentary drinks & snacks" included.  Fourth Airline, fourth airport, fourth attempt: There is much to be learned from the mistakes of others.  My dad tells me that the rolls he buys for breakfast come in a paper bag with information about the new service stapled to it.  Here in London, the Evening Standards contains daily advertisements.  Could this be going well for a change?

The service hasn't started yet, but I'm already pessimistic.  It's not that experience has taught me or that three times a charm but four times's cause for alarm.  No, it's that the service will start on the first of April, the day after Easter, thus obviating financial gain from eager holidaymakers.  I give them half a year.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

saint patrick

The trip was bound to be a good one; I was looking forward to writing about it afterward.  The excess of St. Patrick's celebrations in the middle of the Christian austerity of Lent, a day of unrestrained drinking interrupting forty days of penance, penitence and repentance.  Ireland is a very Christian island.  I was wondering how the the contradiction would be squared.  My observations would be done in the north, on the fourth green field, as the Irish say nostalgically.

Over the years, the Northern Irish have become used to squaring contradictions.  Just a few decades ago bombs would go off on a weekly basis and people be killed regularly for reasons that don't need rehashing here.  Let's just say that the situation calmed considerably with the signing of the Good Friday agreement fifteen years ago.  There were still Unionists and Republicans, nationalists and loyalists, Catholics and Protestants – which are, by the way, not ingredients to a Venn diagram of the conflict but various ways of looking at the same two sides – but they decided to get along and try to make things work.

Things have worked for the most part.  Outside the occasional riot, recently flag-related, Northern Ireland isn't much different from the rest of the UK.  Police stations still sometimes resemble set pieces from Total Recall, but the fortifications are coming down.  Replacing the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was considered biased, even sectarian, with the Police Service of Northern Ireland went a long way towards building trust in the communities, and more relaxed security has been a result.  Another was the turning of Belfast from a city under siege to one of great economic promise in the early 2000s.  Now it is under economic distress like any other medium-sized city in the UK.

When I flew to Belfast last weekend, it was not only to quench my curiosity but also to see a friend of many years.  Culturally, he has nothing to do with Northern Ireland or the conflict.  Luck of the bad kind (denied entry to the country of his choice) and the good kind (an eager employer offering him an alternative to the job he couldn't do anymore) combined to bring him to Northern Ireland more than five years ago.  Now married, he has a small family and is unlikely to leave anytime soon, but he remains an outsider without passion or prejudice.

My friend lives in a terrace of British looking houses, narrow and tall and stacked side by side with no space going to waste.  Who needs a yard when it rains all year?  There's parking in the front and the next terrace in the back.  Inside it's cozy and cute and dominated by staircases.  I slept high up in the attic.  It was raining all night.

It continued to rain throughout the weekend.  It was also windy and miserably cold.  Divis mountain was covered with snow.  Every step outside was a challenge, and we didn't do much besides shuttling between St. George's Market and Caffè Nero, between restaurants for dinner and pubs for drinks.

At first glance, a visitor to Belfast notices nothing of the troubled past.  Then a garish white-blue-and-orange police Land Rover slowly rolls into view, heavily armored and with wire mesh protecting its windows and emergency lighting.  Among the doleful shoppers in a slightly dilapidated pedestrian area, it seems wildly out of place, but like cosmic background radiation, which testifies to the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, it's a reminder of what used to be.

Not an ice cream van

The conflict isn't over.  When Belfast City Council voted, on 3 December of last year, to restrict the flying of the United Kingdom's flag to certain holidays, loyalists objected on the grounds that this constitutes a grave disrespect to their country.  Protests, sometimes exploding into riots outside City Hall, have been simmering ever since.

When I was there, all was quiet, though it seemed to me a particularly propitious day to protest.  St. Patrick's day, the holy day of the patron saint of Ireland, is a celebration of Irishness and green and pride and, by extension, everything that's not British.  In what seemed to me a blatant display of cultural insensitivity, the Union flag flew over City Hall.  Youths shrouded in the same flag or wearing it printed on leggings as we saw that night are perceived as provocations.  But St. Patrick's day was chosen by the Council as one of the days to fly the flag.

On Monday we went to the Titanic Museum.  Titanic was built in the shipyards of Harland and Wolff, on the right side of the river Lagan, just across from central Belfast, but what should be a major tourist draw was for the longest time ignored with considerable embarrassment.  That the boat only sailed for five days might have had something to do with it.  That it took 1500 lives when it sank might have contributed as well.  But in 2012, a hundred years after the disaster, a shiny new museum is dedicated to the construction of Titanic and the historical context of industrial Belfast, the world's dominant supplier of linen before shipbuilding became big.

The museum is spectacularly designed and pulls out all the stops, trying hard to justify the eye-watering admission prices, but it falls short when the actual sinking is concerned.  Whose fault was it, I want to know.  Was the recklessness of the captain, so eager for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic that he ignored warnings of icebergs, to blame?  Was it the operator's delusion of the ship's invulnerability?  Was the shipmaker negligent in implementing safety features?  Who decided on the number of lifeboats and vests, and who was responsible for evacuation procedures?  After three hours immersed in history coming alive, these questions remained unanswered.

Also unanswered remained my questions about boozing to the hilt during Lent.  Due to the demands of the wee one, we missed the parade.  Later that day, my friend and I checked out various pubs downtown and near the university and had a pint here and there, but where was the party?  The mood around us was rather subdued.  People were drinking as they would be on any other Sunday, meeting friends, chatting.  There were silly hats and little plastic shamrock flags but no brawls and no puking in the streets.  No one appeared drunk.  I was left a bit disappointed.  What would I write about?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

two companies

Orange has been my broadband and home phone provider since I moved to London more than five years ago. Sometimes the internet is slow and once the landline went silent for a few weeks, but I've generally been happy. After the first two years, just to see what's possible, I threatened leaving though I had the hardest time identifying a decent alternative. Orange nevertheless dropped my monthly charges by a third to keep me aboard.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from Orange, telling me in self-congratulatory marketing speak that the plan I'm on is on its way out and I will henceforth benefit from drastically reduced services (notably one line instead of two), a pleasure for which I will be charged a meager ten per cent extra. If I don't acquiesce to this extortion and choose to remain on my plan, I will lose my free international calls, which, Orange claims, added up to nearly £150 the month before.

Orange UK has recently merged with T-Mobile, both mobile ventures of former state monopolists (in France and Germany, respectively), to form a mongrel called Everybody Anywhere or something similarly inane. Now existing contracts are destined for the shredder, treasured services discontinued and loyal customers squeezed like oranges. I am not exactly enthusiastic.

Today, to give my rant some perspective, I got a letter from EDF, my gas and electricity provider. I am told that the dual fuel discount that I'm eligible for hasn't been applied to my account for a year. This observation took me a bit by surprise. I haven't seen a gas bill in a year and a half. I pay, by direct debit, a monthly amount that over three years doesn't add up to the winter fuel allowance that every pensioner in this country, whether prosperous or penniless, receives each year.

I live a frugal life and am not beyond a bit of discomfort to live within my means: I take the bus not the taxi even when it rains, I fly economy class, and I turn the heat on only when it hurts. But my direct debit bill can surely not cover all the energy I'm using. My account must accumulate obligations like a Cypriot bank. I've tried to remedy the situation by phoning in current meter readings or submitting them online but have never been successful. There's something wrong with my accounts that no telephone wallah has ever been able to sort out.

Anyway, the letter continues that the missed discount has been a regrettable mistake and that "we are applying a credit to your account". It gets better: "To compensate you for this error we have also applied interest to the credit at a rate of 0.5% as a gesture of goodwill." Disregarding for the moment the 0.5% interest, which is plainly ridiculous on a balance of less than 20 quid, the letter is a nice example of a company giving the appearance of valuing their customers. "…please accept my apologies for this error…"

With this in mind and some ammunition I found in old contracts and current customer acquisition efforts by their competitors, I will call Orange this weekend to find out whether the terms on offer can't be tweaked just a little. There must be a way to make both sides happy.

Monday, March 18, 2013

sugar man

I'm not one to buy into hype easily. When I was in high school, Jurassic Park filled all eleven screens of the local cinema. I stayed at home and encountered the dinos only a few years later when I found myself on the rather insipid Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. Then came The Matrix and so oblivious was I of any details that I later got excited about the digital rain of a neon green Unix screen saver without seeing the connection for years.

It's harder for me to claim distance from the cult of the bitten fruit, given that I've owned two iPods and four Macs. In my defense I say that I've never parted with my own money for the devices or any upgrades, and that while I've got rather comfortable with the computers, I believe the company lost its bearings two-three years ago and nothing worth getting excited about has left their factories since. The trajectory of the operating system has been downward at a frightening pace.

When I went to see a friend of mine in Northern Ireland for the weekend, I had something in my backpack that was the product of a hype, though one that took place long enough ago and far away for me to be comfortable with it. It was Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary that tells the story of Sixto Rodríguez, a singer-songwriter who released two records in the 70s that were quickly forgotten.

In the 80s, by an inexplicable twist of fate, Rodríguez became a star-in-absentia in South Africa, his songs endlessly bootlegged and handed on. It was the days before the internet and instant information, and just as no one in South Africa knew who the mysterious singer was, Rodríguez didn't know that his music had caught a nerve halfway around the globe. In the 90s, two fans started digging, and the story took off from there. Now we've got a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, an Academy Award and a musician who doesn't have to work in excavation and demolition anymore.

In case my friend had already seen the movie, I also bought the soundtrack. I don't quite understand the rationalization of Rodríguez's success that's given on the sleeve. There is no "Dylanesque anti-establishment punch". Lacking the poetry and overdoing the cheese strings, Rodríguez is no Dylan. His voice is unusual but what mesmerized me so much that I exhausted my free-account allowance on Spotify before buying the CD was the sound: old-school and hip at the same time, scratchy and scrawny but fresh. The sound of the original vinyl has been wonderfully preserved; there are strange stereo cross-fades, distortions and tape stretch. Background noises tell of master tapes roughly scraped clean of the grime of four decades. Thanks to brilliant production, all comes together with a sparkling rawness, as if the CD had been recorded last week.

I've got to keep the CD. Like me, my friend hadn't seen the movie. Belfast was rainy and cold. Even the St. Patrick's celebrations didn't encourage us out onto the streets. There was ample time to watch the movie, but with a one-year old, even simple things can turn into logistical challenges. My friend and I repeatedly fled to the warmth of the pub and the comfort of a Guinness, and I still don't know what Sugar Man is all about.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

annual review

It's the middle of March already; high time to look back onto the previous year and go through the books I've read, to sort the good from the bad but also to keep the record going.  Last year, and it's not the first time I mention this, threw a lot of distractions at me and kept my mind occupied.  There was much less time for reading than in the previous years and the number of books I finished halved.

Here it goes:

  • Best American Travel Writing (2005) – If this compilation is anything to go by, 2005 was a bad year for travel writing.  The book is full of inconsequential, self-absorbed pieces, memories of my father and places I've seen and the like.  Insight or surprises are largely lacking.  Many pieces are written in the present tense in painful worship of the fake urgency of now.  It is telling that the one of the best stories describes a walk from New Jersey to New York City.
  • Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson – Bryson is a rockstar travel writer, but his forced funniness gets tiring quickly.  Nevertheless, this memoir weaved into a tour of Britain stands strong, if only as a historical document of Britain in the 90s.
  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux – Great travel writing is always about what a place felt like at a certain time; its quality can only be told decades later.  This landmark book, as old as me, sometimes gets repetitive with endless rides down transcontinental train lines, but it captures the vibes of all the places traversed, places that don't exist in this form anymore for the most part.
  • Chasing Che by Patrick Symmes – An obvious project that could have easily gone wrong.  The author sets out, on his trusty BMW, to retrace Che's tire marks as described in The motorcycle diaries.  As he is not a hagiographer of Che but a traveler with open eyes, this book brings a lot of unexpected encounters and is rather inspiring.
  • The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa – In the second half of the 19th century, Sicily was transitioning from feudalism to modernity.  This little book captures some of the turmoil, but I was less than impressed.
  • Tschick by Wolfgang Herrndorf – A spontaneous purchase at Munich airport at the end of a long day became the highlight of my literary year.  In a stolen car, two unlikely teenage friends embark on a hilarious roadtrip through places that can be identified only sporadically but ring close to home.  The writing is fresh and every improbability entirely believable.
  • Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino – This collection of short stories by one of the godfathers of modern Italian literature is well done, especially the topically related first half, but it didn't bowl me over.
  • ¡Guerra! by Jason Webster – An American in Spain tries to understand the Civil War on location.  The more he learns, the more he travels to find out more.  History and the present are seamlessly intertwined in this engaging and enlightening book.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway was in Spain when it happened, though as a journalist, not a fighter. Here, he imagines three extraordinarily dense days in the war.  While the narrative and the characters are rather cookie-cutter, the writing is a feast.
  • A year in the merde by Stephen Clarke – College grad goes to Paris for work and girls, with emphasis squarely on the latter, and writes down what happens to shows France how only a foreigner can see it.
  • Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth – A compendium of words with explanations and etymological back stories.  I learned a lot and forgot most, obscure without fail, almost right away.  But I love words, and I loved this book.
  • Downriver by Iain Sinclair – This book is an abomination, full of verbal incontinence, navel gazing and insider jokes made to make the reader feel inadequate. On the other hand, it must be said, Sinclair is an exceptionally skilled writer. (And apologies for originally misspelling his first name in my earlier Hatchet Job of the Year contender of a review.)

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

business traveler

I spent hours this evening in the darkness of interchangeable spaces: A taxi that could have gone anywhere, a train station whose name doesn't matter, a train shooting through the night though its direction of travel was of no immediate concern to me, a station forecourt that couldn't have been drabber and which I couldn't identify, another taxi, and finally an identikit motel.

Another day at the synchrotron is coming up. On three previous occasions, I enjoyed the pleasure of collecting data remotely. A mosaic of large screens, a fast internet connection and a robot eager to please helped me carry out experiments matter-of-factly, without inconveniencing my daily routine. But tonight certain finesses in my experimental setup require my presence in the wilderness of Oxfordshire where the facility is located.

If there were compensation, the waste of time would be bearable, but there's nothing. Outside the eight-hour shift tomorrow, every minute passes in utter futility. Throughout the bouncy ride to Paddington I worried about the crystals I was carrying on my knees, the trays they had grown in stashed in a Styrofoam box inside a Marks & Spencer bag. The train journey was too short to be relaxing.

The motel could have been in the middle of a landfill, by the seaside or next to an open-pit copper mine. I had no stake in the journey; only the driver knew where he was going. There were no lights around and no life. It was clearly not in a city, but then the countryside around Oxford isn't exactly known for its abundance of cities.

The motel was fantastic and an abomination in one, an explosion of contradictions impossible to square. It's part of a large chain and has not even a trace of soul. The color and the furniture and the carpets and the employees are identical in every location. From a distance, everything looks assembled from standardized prefabricated pieces. It's dreadful, the place where no one stays voluntarily, filled with solitary business travelers, sales representatives between appointments with reluctant customers, and vacationers stranded on their way home by some unexpected mishap.

Look closer and things are nice: The room is big and spotless. The TV is the size of a desk, the bathroom fittings are superior, and the shower is a veritable Niagara Falls of hot comfort. The tiles are ceramic, but when you take a step back, the entire bathroom still manages to produce a one-piece-molded-from-plastic feeling. The hotel could probably be completely folded up in a few hours, ready to be reassembled in a more promising location.

There was a restaurant on the premises. I was delighted because I was hungry. The menu was printed on a fold-out of plasticized paper, to be changed yearly at best. It's got the usual suspects: a dozen variations of fish & chips and burgers. The Puddings & Sundaes section is nearly as big as the Main Dishes. I took a seat and almost instantly regretted it.

The waiter was robotic, rattling off the specials and apologizing that there was no beef lasagna tonight. I didn't inquire whether they had run out or whether the discovery of certain contaminants had compelled them to pull it off the menu a while back already and declined the beef burger, another signature dish of the ongoing horsemeat scandal, preferring fish cakes instead. There was no telling whether they were haddock as the menu asserted.

This was the place where even the head of the kitchen – I hesitate calling him chef – doesn't know what's on a plate. In all likelihood, the food was prepared remotely in an industrial setting, possibly off-shore in a low-wage country, from ingredients that unskilled workers mix in repetitive motions. Frozen and dispensed across the country, it is then heated up as needed. There's no waste and no personal touch.

For all these efficiencies, the dishes were madly expensive, the effect of a captive customer base, hungry after a day on the road or in meetings, with no alternative. I spent exactly 17 minutes in the restaurant, wolfing down dinner and guzzling an ale. The waiter returned a handful of change from a twenty ("Sorry, it's all in shrapnel.") and I was off, catching some sleep before tomorrow's intense eight hours.

Sunday, March 03, 2013


This afternoon, Keith O'Brien, a former archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and cardinal who was only a short flight away from picking the next pope, admitted, after more than a week of lying about it, that "there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal". My mouth fell open.

It wasn't so much sexual misconduct in the Catholic church but the way O'Brien phrased his admission. What exactly is the standard above which the sexual conduct of a cardinal should fall? Isn't sexual conduct in all and any forms a big nono for Catholic priests? Do laxer rules apply to archbishops and cardinals? Is the pope allowed to attend bunga bunga parties? In his 80s? Very strange indeed.

A look back: Three priests and a former priest, male all four of them, allege being contacted inappropriately, after night prayers for example, by the cardinal who was back then just a priest. The complaints aren't any more specific, but it's easy to imagine if you're so inclined. The cardinal's reaction: "I will will now spend the rest of my life in retirement".

I don't understand. By the cardinal's own words, homosexuals are "captives of sexual aberrations". According to Leviticus, homosexuality is an abomination before the lord. Surely if Keith O'Brien lives by what he taught, he will request excommunication and live the rest of his life in penance and regret – or, because he'd be free of the Catholic hogwash about his sexuality, in a loving relationship with the partner he looked for but never found.

That O'Brien was awarded the "Bigot of the Year" trophy by Stonewall, a London-based gay-rights group, late last year now sounds almost miraculously clairvoyant, as if the hand of a higher being had been involved.